Wednesday, July 5, 2017

A Promise Fulfilled

If I were forced to choose just two Bruce Springsteen albums for a desert island stay (boxed sets don’t count), I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). When I was a teenager, these albums captured my imagination in a way that few albums ever have. They still do.  More than that, they represent a key transition in Springsteen’s vision as a songwriter.  First there’s Born to Run – the colorful characters, the driving anthems and the lush wall-of-sound production. Then there’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – powerful and raw, a head-on collision between hope and desperation. But never surrender. As the street poets give way to factory workers and the romantic dreams of escape turn to a darker reality, Springsteen finds heroism in the everyday struggle. The appeal of The Promise, the two-disc collection of songs recorded in 1977 and released last month by Sony, is that it captures the moment of transition. It’s a glimpse into the making of an artist.

Professional athletes peak at the age of 27 or 28. For artists, there’s no such rule and no such limit. Still, for most of us, turning 30 represents something pivotal. As adults, we’re just finding our footing, still coming to understand the world, our community and our place within them. Our dreams and ideals aren’t necessarily abandoned, but they’re recalibrated and redefined in light of maturity and new understanding. These discoveries are expressed in the work of writers and artists. At the age of 28, Bruce Springsteen had recorded three albums, including the acclaimed Born to Run and had appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was emerging as something of a rock star but was a long way from mega-star or celebrity status. He had also been involved in a nasty legal dispute with his former manager over the rights to his songs. And when he looked around, he saw a post-Watergate nation living in doubt and he saw working class people from the towns he knew struggling to make sense of their lives.

Like other serious fans, I was already familiar with some of the tracks on The Promise through the magic of bootlegging (“Rendezvous”, “Outside Looking In”, “The Promise”) and I was pretty sure the album was going to be something special. Still, I wondered if this was the sort of release that would appeal only to hardcore fans. Were the unreleased songs left off previous albums for good reason? Was The Promise just a desperate ploy on the part of a dying music industry to pry cash from fans on the strength of one of the label’s few profitable artists?

If it was a ploy, it was one of the better ones that Sony has come up with. The Promise offers alternate takes of songs that appear on Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), favorites better known from versions by other artists (“Because the Night”, “Fire”, “Talk to Me”) and a terrific collection of rockers, 60s-style pop and soul, and heart-felt ballads which span the mood and the musical distance between Born to Run and Darkness. There’s a wealth of tasty material here. The boxed set also includes DVDs of some riveting live performances with the E-Street Band and the special which aired on HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the sessions, the loose-limbed Springsteen is alternately light-hearted and intensely serious. But there’s no mistaking the drive, the restlessness and the creative energy.

The two-disc set can be seen as a sort of “lost” Springsteen album from, arguably, his most creative period. It’s not merely a collection of rejected outtakes and not-quite-good-enough songs. It more than holds its own as a cohesive work and it also offers fascinating insight into Springsteen’s creative process. The songs don’t simply come to him in fevered dreams or moments of inspiration. Instead, we see Springsteen the tinkerer, a craftsman at work. He tries different melodies with different lyrics, he mixes and matches verses, attempting different concoctions until he arrives at something that fits with the mood, the characters and theme of the story he wants to tell.

“Candy’s Boy” features most of the lyrics that would eventually make up “Candy’s Room” but a different melody and slower tempo give the song an entirely different feel. It’s a bittersweet lament rather than a desperate rocker. “Spanish Eyes” has a lyric that would appear on Born in the USA seven years later (“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone”). “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight) uses the melody and a few lines from “Factory” but it’s a completely different song. It also has the line that would emerge years later on the underrated B-Side, Johnny Bye-Bye: “The man on the radio says Elvis Presley died.” We’re reminded that a good writer is also a judicious self-editor. It’s as if Springsteen (perhaps with Jon Landau whispering in his ear) said “I LOVE this lyric but it doesn’t work for the story I’m trying to tell right here.” So he files it away for another day.

This fruitful recording session ultimately produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, a landmark album for Springsteen. It was the first album in which he explored in depth the subject that mattered most to him throughout his career – the American Dream. And as good as The Promise is, you don’t hear any song on it that causes you to say “He should have put THAT on Darkness." For one thing, Darkness isn’t wanting for much of anything. But most of the songs on The Promise are too sentimental by comparison. The one possible exception might be the song, “The Promise,” which was as unsentimental a song as Springsteen had ever written. Just two years after he was “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road”, Springsteen recorded these lyrics:

      All my life I fought this fight
      The fight that no man can ever win
      Every day it just gets harder to live
      This dream I'm believing in
      Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
      Thunder Road there's something dying down on the highway tonight

He's a long way from Born to Run.  In the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, there’s a great passage in which the 30-something narrator muses:

In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.

Nick Hornby’s narrator probably hadn’t heard “The Promise.” The choices are NOT simple. The escapes don’t always work.  Springsteen’s character drives his Challenger down Route 9 through dead ends, chasing ghosts. Dreams can wither and die. And life goes on. The struggle continues. The beauty of Darkness is the way Springsteen tries to capture that struggle without flinching and without ever succumbing to resignation. When Pete Townshend first heard Darkness on the Edge of Town he summed it up this way: “When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man.”

What The Promise offers is that same triumph but with a bit more fun.


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wilco's 50 Best Songs

I don't know if there has been a better American rock band over the past two decades. Back in my old neighborhood, in the 1990s, I found myself completely absorbed by the Alt-Country genre or, if you prefer, Cow Punk.  I listened to Steve Earle, Social Distortion, the Jayhawks, Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo, Lucinda Williams and the Old 97s. I read No Depression magazine. I discovered the seminal alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo just as they were dissolving. But rather than take sides in the divorce between Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy, I rejoiced in the fact that there would be two new bands to embrace, Son Volt and Wilco.

Son Volt was stronger out of the gate but I had no complaints. I loved both debuts, Son Volt's Trace and Wilco's A.M.. And on a summer night in New York City in 1995, I crowded into Tramps on West 21st Street and saw Wilco play their raucous, aching heartland rock 'n' roll well past 1:00 am. I loved it. But it was the following year, when Wilco released  the ambitious double-CD, Being There, it became clear that this band was taking their game to another level. From the sonic chaos that opens the album to the soulful ballads to the revved-up rockers, listening to Wilco was like taking a journey across America and the landscape of your own heart. And the journey continued with the lush Brian Wilson inspired pop of Summerteeth, the post 9/11 discordant beauty of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the noise rock of A Ghost is Born and onward.

My list  draws only lightly from the newer albums. Not necessarily because they're weaker albums but because Wilco's best songs take on deeper meaning over time, as you listen and live with them for a while. Wilco is a band with very diverse musical styles and different elements will appeal to different fans. Ask any another Wilco fan to pick their own top 50 songs--  half might be different songs entirely and you might see a completely different top 10. I love that about Wilco.

Anyway, here are mine:

50.   Casino Queen (A.M.)

Raunchy rocker from the Wilco’s debut album. Needs more cowbell.

49.  One By One (Mermaid Avenue)

Jeff Tweedy gives voice to some of Woody Guthrie’s most heartbreaking lyrics.

48.  Someone to Lose (Schmilco)

The standout track on Wilco’s latest album, a solid, understated effort that gets better with repeated listens. 

47.   Pot Kettle Black (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

A catchy rhythmic number with the late Jay Bennett on steel guitar.  

46.   Red Eyed and Blue (Being There)

Few writers or singers capture a world-weary and lonesome feel the way that Jeff Tweedy can. 

45.  She’s a Jar (Summerteeth)

Wilco’s lush baroque pop and abstract lyricism are combined on this almost unbearably sad song. 

44.  You Are My Face (Sky Blue Sky)

Layers of musical and emotional depth in Neels Cline’s guitar work.

 I Got You (at the End of the Century) (Being There)

Wilco’s second album, Being There, contains elements of everything that Wilco was or would become. “I Got You” is pure power pop but check out the bluegrass version used by Judd Apatow for This is 40

42.  Theologians (A Ghost is Born)

I still have no frickin’ idea what a cherry ghost is. Does it matter?

Art of Almost (The Whole Love)

No song better illustrates Wilco's journey from alt-country Uncle Tupelo origins to art rock and electronic noise. This one’s a wild ride. 

40.  Reservations (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Beautiful ballad is the perfect closer for Wilco's most adventurous and complicated album. 

39.  I Can’t Stand it (Summerteeth)

On the opening track of Summerteeth, Wilco offers up a shimmering pop melody and soulful groove. 

38.   Either Way (Sky Blue Sky)

The opener for Sky Blue Sky is a beautifully contemplative number.

Far Far Away (Being There)

My God. Even Hank Williams wasn’t this lonesome. 

36.  Muzzle of Bees (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco’s quiet layered guitars build to a rich atmospheric finish.

35.  Hate it Here (Sky Blue Sky)

On an album full of metaphors and abstract lyrics, Tweedy keeps it real, (“I do the dishes, I mow the lawn”) but still can’t escape the loneliness

Radio Cure (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Have we mentioned Jeff Tweedy’s knack for writing beautiful but unbearably sad songs? ("distance has no way of making love understandable").   

33.  Monday (Being There)

Dirty, loose and loud, Monday sounds like something off Exile on Main Street.

You and I (Wilco (The Album))

Lovely duet with Canadian Indy darling, Feist.

31.  Company in My Back (A Ghost is Born)

An understated track that chugs along and builds into a kaleidoscope chorus. Great use of dulcimer.

I’m Always in Love (Summerteeth)

A joyful burst of a pop song.

29.  A Magazine Called Sunset (More Like the Moon, EP)

A gorgeous melody, filled with color and longing. Somehow this track got left off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

28.   I’m the Man Who Loves You (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

While Neels Cline does the guitar shredding on the more recent albums, here it’s Jeff Tweedy bringing the noise like Neil Young.  

27.  You Never Know (Wilco (the Album))

A cheerful nod to George Harrison. Tweedy wisely observes, Every generation thinks it’s the end of the world.

26.   Hotel Arizona (Being There)

A pulsing, moody and ambitious track showing us that Wilco was not just following some alt-country formula.  

25.  Hummingbird (A Ghost is Born)

Catchy hummable number with rich orchestration.

24.  I Am Trying to Break  Your Heart (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Probably Wilco’s most daring and influential song. Just ask the band, American Aquarium. 

23.  Via Chicago (Summerteeth)

You're instantly grabbed by that disturbing opening line: I dreamed about killing you again last night and it felt alright to me.  

22.  I Must Be High (A.M.)

First album, first track.  Here is Wilco at their alt-country best, wistful, shimmering guitars and sing-along-chorus. (“bye, bye bye…”)

Remember the Mountain Bed (Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II)

One of the best Woody Guthrie song recordings.

20.  At Least That’s What You Said (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco kicked off their most eclectic album with a strong musical statement – a quiet contemplative reflection that explodes into a Crazy Horse style jam. 

19.   Nothinsevergonnastandinmywayagain (Summerteeth)

An infectious pop gem.

18.  One Wing (Wilco (The Album))

A moody song with terrific-sounding guitar. 

17.  The Late Greats (A Ghost is Born)

The best songs will never get sung
The best life never leaves your lungs
So good you won't ever know
You'll never hear it on the radio

16.  Poor Places (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Wilco’s beautiful lament about lack of connection is made more vivid bookended by atmospheric drones and electronic noise

15.   Outasite (Outta mind) (Being There)

An irresistible rocker and radio/MTV-friendly track off of Being There.

14.  Passenger Side (A.M.)

Tweedy’s wry country-rock ballad about a suspended driver’s license and broken heart.

13. Spiders (Kidsmoke) (A Ghost is Born)

Wilco’s hypnotic Krautrock never feels cold to me. The energy really comes through in live versions.  

12.  Sunken Treasure (Being There)

A hint of what was to come: a lonesome voice, discordant beauty and unforgettable lyrics. I was maimed by rock ‘n roll.  

Born Alone (The Whole Love)

A catchy tune, a biting guitar hook and a descent into sonic chaos that sounds like "A Day in the Life" played backwards.  

10.  Box Full of Letters (A.M)

A terrific burst of rock-pop, still with an alt-country flavor, on Wilco's debut.

Handshake Drugs (A Ghost is Born)

Simple melodies explode into guitar chaos. This is a great one live.  

8.  Heavy Metal Drummer (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

In the movie, Almost Famous, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing rock critic, Lester Bangs, declares, “the day [rock] ceases to be dumb is the day it ceases to be real.” I'm reminded of this song - a celebration of rock music's glorious dumbness. 

7.   How to Fight The Loneliness (Summerteeth)

The answer, as you know, is:  smile all the time. 

6.  Jesus, etc. (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

A transcendent pop song: You were right about the stars. Each one is a setting sun.

5.   California Stars (Mermaid Avenue)

Speaking of stars, here's the highlight of the great Woody Guthrie recordings. The melody and Tweedy’s lazy delivery washes over you. You can feel the evening breeze. It feels like hope.

4.  Impossible Germany (Sky Blue Sky)

Yeah, it’s the guitar. Everything floats along nicely enough but when Neels Cline gets going, you’re transported to someplace wonderful.

3.   A Shot in the Arm (Summerteeth)

It’s hard to imagine a better opening lyric (The ashtray said, you were up all night) or a better example of how a song so dark can be so damn catchy.  

2.  Ashes of American Flags (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)

Everything that is great about Wilco is here in this song. Melody and chaos. Alienation and beauty.  

1.  Misunderstood (Being There)

I’ll never forget the first time I heard this. I tore off the plastic of my new double-CD, Being There, (purchased at a single-CD price), popped in disc one (the cream-colored one) and was blown away.  When the sonic anarchy of the intro fades, Tweedy's lonesome voice unburdens his small-town punk-dreamer-every-man's soul. And then a flight into something primal and magnificent. It’s like experiencing all of rock and roll’s dreams and nightmares in six minutes.    


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Top 30 Outfielders not in the Hall of Fame

On a beautiful day in Cooperstown, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mika Piazza were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Both selections were well deserved. Junior received the highest voting percentage of all time (99.32%).  Next year, two outfielders will appear on the ballot for the first time - Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramirez.  Ramirez would be a lock but for his association with PEDs. Vlad isn't a lock but he'll get strong consideration (and if selected, will be the first in the Hall wearing an Angel's cap). In the meantime, let's look at the best outfielders who haven't gotten into the Hall (who are eligible - which why there's no Pete Rose or Joe Jackson).

30.     Dom Dimaggio

Dom Dimaggio was underrated even in his own day, overshadowed by both his famous brother and his teammate, Ted Williams. But outside of New York, he was regarded as the best defensive center fielder in the league and he was consistently among the league leaders in hits, runs and stolen bases. He lost three prime years to WWII but still finished his career with a .298 average and 1,680 hits.

29.      Curt Flood

Best known for challenging the reserve cause, Flood was the best defensive center fielder of his day, winning 7 gold gloves. He was a career .293 hitter and helped the Cardinals win 2 World Series, in 1964 and 1967. 

28.    Bob Johnson

An underrated left-fielder, Johnson was an 8-time all-star for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1930s, batting .296 and driving in over 1200 runs. 

27.      Amos Otis

In 1969, the Mets traded a young shortstop prospect named Amos Otis to the Royals for Joe Foy.  It’s one of the worst trades the Mets ever made – in a strong field. Otis went on to become an outstanding center fielder and key contributor for the excellent Kansas City Royals of the 1970s.  He won 3 Gold Gloves and totaled more than 2,000 hits, 1000 runs and 1,000 RBIs.   

26.      Albert Belle

Many baseball fans think that it was PEDs that kept Belle from any Hall of Fame consideration but Belle has never been linked to steroids. He was, however, linked to being an asshole. It’s a shame because on the field, Belle was a model of consistency, batting .295 and averaging 37 home runs and 120 RBIs between 1991 and 2000.

25.      Frank Howard

Enormous slugger starred for the Dodgers and Senators, totaling 382 home runs and over 1000 RBIs.   

24.     Rocky Colavito

A slugging right fielder for the Indians and Tigers, Colavito  had six 100 RBI seasons and three seasons of 40 or more homers. 

23.      Kenny Lofton

A terrific lead-off hitter and defensive center fielder, Lofton’s excellence was overshadowed by the home runs and steroids which came to dominate baseball in the late 1990s. Lofton was a 6-time all-star and a 4-time gold glove award winner who finished his career with nearly 2500 hits, over 1500 runs scored and 622 stolen bases. 

22.      Sherry Magee

A five-tool star from the dead ball era, Magee was a terrific left fielder for the Phillies, leading the league in RBIs four times.

21.      Bernie Williams

Perhaps the finest guitarist to ever play in the major leagues, Williams was an excellent center fielder and clutch hitter for a Yankee team that won 4 World Series. He’s baseball’s all-time leader in postseason games played, and RBIs. Only Manny Ramirez has more postseason home runs. 

20.      Wally Berger

A center fielder for the Boston Braves, Berger is best known for slugging 38 home runs as a rookie in 1930.  He was a career .300 hitter with 242 home runs – quite a few of them tape-measure shots. 

19.      Roger Maris

His career numbers wouldn’t merit consideration this high but his record-breaking 61 home run season and back-to-back MVP awards seem all the more remarkable over time.  Maris was also an excellent defender with one of the best throwing arms in the game. 

18.      Rusty Staub

Le Grand Orange holds the distinction of being the only player to get 500 hits with four separate clubs. Still a legend in Montreal and New York, he finished his career just shy of 3,000 hits.

 17.    Fred Lynn

Lynn found it hard to live up to his rookie season of 1975, when he won rookie of the year and MVP. He was still a 9-time All Star and terrific center fielder who put together a solid career.

16.      Cesar Cedeno

A five-tool talent and early star for the Astros, Cedeno won 5 Gold Gloves and posted three seasons of 20 home runs and 50 stolen bases.  

15.      Bobby Bonds

The poor man’s Barry Bonds, pops was a true power-speed threat who banged over 300 home runs, had 7 seasons of more than 40 stolen bases and played a terrific right field.  
14.      Reggie Smith

Switch-hitting slugger starred for the Red Sox, Cardinals and Dodgers was a 7-time All Star and retired behind Mickey Mantle on the all-time home run list for switch hitters. 

13.      Vada Pinson

One of the most underrated players of all time, Pinson was a terrific all-around player who starred for the Reds in the 1960s and amassed over 250 home runs, 1100 RBIs and 2700 hits.

 12.      Jim Edmonds

He probably deserved better than the 2.5% vote he received in 2016, his first and only time on the Baseball Writer’s ballot. A center-fielder who won 8 Gold Glove Awards, Edmonds batted .284 with 393 home runs, 1199 RBIs and 1251 runs scored.  

11.      Tony Oliva

A three-time batting champion, Oliva was a career .304 hitter with the Twins and an 8-time All Star.

10.      Dale Murphy

If not for a rapid decline at age 32, Murphy would be a lock.  A converted catcher, Murphy was a two-time MVP, an early member of the 30-30 club and a graceful center fielder who hit 398 home runs and over 1200 RBIs. 

 9.      Jim Wynn

The “toy cannon” was victimized by playing in pitcher’s park (Houston Astrodome) in pitcher’s era, but was still a terrific all-around center fielder. 

8.      Minnie Minosa

The “Cuban Comet” was a spark plug for the White Sox in the 1950s, batting .298 with over 1000 runs and 1000 RBIs.  

7.      Dave Parker

For a while, Parker was probably the best player in baseball.  The National League MVP in 1978, the Cobra was one first player paid a million dollars per year and also one of the first mixed up in cocaine. But he was fearsome hitter, a 7-time all-star who had one of baseball's best throwing arms.    

6.      Sammy Sosa

Eventually, players linked to steroids will get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were so good when they weren’t cheating, it seems likely that their transgressions may one day be overlooked. That is unlikely to be the case with Sosa, whose case for the Hall rests on an incredible 5 year run when he batted .306 and averaged 58 homre runs and 141 RBIs. Knowing that he tested positive the very next year, who's going to believe that he wasn't juiced during that entire time period?

5.      Gary Sheffield

Interesting career. A devastating hitter who bounced around the league, Sheffield was, it needs to be said, something of a defensive liability. But he’s just the 13th player in baseball history with 500 home runs, 1600 RBIs and 1600 runs scored.  

4.      Dwight Evans

When I was a kid, it was a great argument – whether Dave Parker or Dwight Evans (or Dave Winfield) had the best throwing arm from right field. (But don’t forget Ellis Valentine.)  Of the bunch, it was Evans who had the most outfield assists.  He was a rock of consistency for the Sox and hit 385 home runs and had nearly 2500 hits. 

3.      Larry Walker

In his 6th year of eligibility, Walker received only 15% of the vote, which does not bode well for his chances of making the Hall. He’s being punished for: 1) playing in the steroid era and 2) playing in hitter-friendly Coors field (He did bat .348 at Coors and only .278 on the road).  But Walker was a true five-tool player who did everything well and won 7 Gold Gloves.  His only weakness was staying healthy. 

2.      Tim Raines

Raines was just one of many players caught up with cocaine (which, we should remember, is not a performance enhancing drug).  But his association with the drug is especially strong because of the vivid anecdote of how he slid head first to avoid breaking the vials of cocaine he kept in the back pocket of his uniform pants. What gets forgotten is how good he was. There’s the 2600 hits, the .385 career on-base percentage and the 808 stolen bases (4th best of all time).  And his stolen base percentage (85%) was better than Rickey Henderson’s and much better than Lou Brock’s.

1.      Barry Bonds

The best, by far.      

Honorable Mention:  Joe Carter, Jack Clark, Jose Cruz, Charlie Keller, Bobby Murcer, Al Oliver, Bobby Veach

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Winter Is Coming

It was a tough week for England.

First, the UK voted to leave the European Union, a decision that has left many people scratching their heads as the British economy tanks and the pound continues to nosedive into free fall. “But we’ve taken our country back!” say the supporters of Brexit jubilantly. At least the ones without buyer’s remorse. It’s not clear what “taking our country back” means since the UK would be no more sovereign as non-member state than it is presently as member of the EU. And the promise made by supporters of Brexit, that the money going to the EU can instead go to national healthcare has been exposed as a lie. Some have suggested that breaking away from the EU will mean that the UK can better control its border though just how or why is unclear. The UK is not part of the Schengen Area, meaning the British government (not the EU) already has full control over the UK’s borders. Many have explained the vote as nothing less than the triumph of nativist, xenophobic, nationalist hysteria spread about by ambitious demagogues. Imagine that. Bewildered Americans should not be too smug.  

            Then things got even worse. England’s 2-1 loss to Iceland in the Round of 16 of the Euros is one of the biggest upsets in European soccer history. It's true that England has in recent years been a bit delusional about their soccer ambitions. And yes, anyone who watched the qualifying campaign and Group matches would have noticed that Iceland is for real and that England’s play has been a bit shaky. Still, for a traditional powerhouse like England to lose to a tiny island nation with a population half the size of Vermont is stunning. (Supposedly, 10% of all Icelanders are in France watching the tournament.) England hasn’t endured this kind of humiliation by Scandinavians since Torkfell the Tall sacked Canterbury in 1012.

Many Americans know Iceland only as the place where Game of Thrones films the scenes north of the Wall. (It's the primitive land of endless winter, where the White Walkers dwell, threatening to breach the Wall with an army of the dead. The scenery is beautiful and tourism in Iceland is booming.)  But the Brits have tussled with Iceland before. Beginning in the 1950s the UK and Iceland clashed over fishing rights in a series of confrontations known as the Cod Wars. It may have been the closest two NATO nations have ever come to a shooting war. The NATO-negotiated settlement largely favored Iceland. England’s fishing industry has been in decline ever since.

And Iceland isn’t finished. On Sunday, Iceland plays France in the Quarterfinals in the Stade de France, just north of Paris. The stadium is less than two miles from the medieval Basilica of Saint Denis where France buried its kings for centuries. France is the host country of Euro 2016 and Les Blues, having come from behind to beat Ireland 2-1, will like their chances against Iceland. They should be wary. The French were also overconfident in the year 845 A.D. when Viking ships ran up the Seine and sacked Paris.

Take nothing for granted. 


Monday, March 14, 2016

Top 10 Myths About Donald Trump

“I play to people’s fantasies” - Donald Trump

“The truth is that men are tired of liberty” – Benito Mussolini

“Just remember  It’s not a lie…if you believe it”   - George Costanza 

Poor Donald Trump. The media and political establishment are being so unfair to him because he's politically incorrect and dares to challenge a corrupt establishment with new ideas, real leadership and bold vision. That's bullshit of course. And even though so much has already been said about Donald Trump, America's favorite con artist, demagogue and reality game show host, it's still quite astonishing how much nonsense is still out there.  

And so here are 10 myths about Donald Trump:

1.  Donald Trump was opposed to the Iraq War from the beginning.  

Donald Trump likes to tell people that he was opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  It's a line that serves two purposes.  It distinguishes him from the other Republican candidates (and from Hillary Clinton)  and it also gives the impression that he’s not just some dipshit celebrity but rather, someone capable of making sound judgments on foreign policy.  It’s also a lie. The Iraq war began on March 20, 2003 and had been the subject of lively public debate throughout the previous year. But during the run up to the war, when Trump appeared on the Howard Stern show, he was asked if he supported the Iraq war. “Yeah, I guess so,” said Trump.  His first statement that he was against the war was made in July of 2004 more than a year after the invasion.  A month earlier, in June of 2004, CNN announced that a major Gallup poll showed that 54% of Americans believed the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.  Got that?  One month after knowing that most Americans were against the war, Donald Trump took a moment from The Apprentice to say that he was against it too. How insightful!

2.  Trump has renounced racism and bigotry.   

By now, we've all heard about the sordid episode when Donald Trump lied through his teeth, telling  the American public that he doesn't know anything about David Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard who came out in favor of Trump.  When pressed the following day, Trump blamed the lie on a faulty earpiece - an excuse which made absolutely no sense.  Trump also said "I disavowed David Duke a day before at a major press conference and I'm saying to myself how  many times to I have to continue to disavow people."

Only Trump did not disavow David Duke the day before - instead he played dumb - and he waited several more days before disavowing the Ku Klux Klan at a March 3rd Republican debate.  "I totally disavow the KKK", said Trump sounding more annoyed than convincing. But he couldn't leave it alone and he went on to say that he had been disavowing Duke and the KKK for two weeks - another demonstrable lie.  It's not an accident that Trump waited until after Super Tuesday for this tepid disavowal:  White nationalists and bigots are a key part of Trump's base.

No person, not even Trump, should be responsible for the sins of his father. But given Fred Trump's  history as a racist landlord, Donald's own long track record of race episodes becomes all the more unsettling.  In 1927, Fred Trump, then 21 years old, was arrested in Queens when a Ku Klux Klan demonstration turned violent.  (Some things don't change).  Now, of course, that's not necessarily evidence that Donald's Daddy was a KKK member. But rather than distance himself from the KKK or condemn what that organization represented, Donald's defensiveness about his father's arrest was almost comical.  "It never happened, he wasn't there and besides, he wasn't charged with any crime" - that's almost verbatim.    

3.  Donald Trump's campaign is self-funded.

John Oliver has done a nice job exposing this particular fib.  Trump's website asks for donations, he has received millions in donations, he actually has the support of a Super PAC and even his "self-funding" is borrowed money. It's true that he's less dependent on outside donations than other candidates but it's curious that this financial "independence" should be seen as so appealing. For decades Trump has been an ambitious political operator who brazenly boasts about buying politicians for influence. And now, we're supposed be impressed that he's so rich that he isn't beholden to special interests? Trump is a special interest.   

4.  Mexico, China and Japan are killing us in trade.

Trump likes to say: "America doesn't win anymore." Really?  Somebody should let Mexico, China and Japan know.  Our economy is far stronger than theirs. The game Trump is playing is pretending that a trade deficit means that we are "losing" economically but that's nonsense.  Running a trade deficit (which we've done since the 1970s) does not actually mean that you're losing. It's not an accident that no country has rebounded from the recession of 2007-08 faster or stronger than the U.S.  

5.  Donald Trump supports the military and our veterans.  

Trump is hardly the only politician of his generation to skip the Vietnam War - he received 4 medical deferments for alleged bone spurs that miraculously went away just after the war ended.  But few draft-dodging politicians have been so clueless about, or contemptuous of military service - whether comparing his sexual escapades to military combat or by insulting the sacrifice of  POWs.  And no, Mr. Trump, spending 8th grade in a military school where they force you to make your bed is nothing like the experience of those men and women who actually serve in the armed forces 

6.  Donald Trump is a friend to the Jews.  

It's no surprise that the most virulent anti-Semites - from the KKK to Louis Farrakhan - are vocal Trump supporters. What is a bit more surprising is the ugliness of Trump's own remarks about Jews. According to the former president of one his casinos, Trump once said "the only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day."  Then there was his foray into stereotyping at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, "I don't want your money so therefore, you're probably not going to support me."  Now this kind of thing might be dismissed as playful if it was your friend telling jokes, but context matters.  This is not Don Rickles - it's Donald Trump and he's got a long and ugly history.

The Anti-defamation League wasn't terribly upset by those remarks but the hate-watchdogs were less sanguine when Trump extracted a chilling fascist-style loyalty oath from his supporters. 

Trump also flirts with conspiracy nuts like the 9/11-Truthers who believe that that the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center was an inside job.  Trump promised that if he's elected "you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center."  Trump was referring to classified portions of the official 9/11 report and the suggestion is that Bush and/or the Saudis were complicit and knew about the attack in advance.  Of course, one can be a conspiracy nut without being an anti-Semite but the historical correlation between the two will not bring comfort to American Jews. 

7.  Trump has the courage to be politically incorrect.

By now it should be obvious that "political correctness" is in the eye of the beholder. (Why didn't Trump "tell it like it is" and call out the Bundy militia in Oregon for leading an armed insurrection against the United States?  Because it wouldn't have been "politically correct" for him to do so. And because those are his supporters.) But Trump is often praised for daring to be "politically incorrect" when he calls out Islam as a threat to the United States. Never mind that the Pentagon has blasted Trump's proposal for banning Muslims from entering the U.S. as a gift to ISIS and a threat to national security.  When did Trump start pretending to be such a tough guy? Quite recently, it turns out. Just last year, when a bunch of activists threatened to draw pictures of Mohammed, Trump begged them to knock it off.  Why would you want to get those Muslims upset? They get so very angry.  Trump wasn't just being politically correct. He was capitulating to the jihadists.  He was a weak-kneed appeaser until he saw an opportunity for himself by singing a different tune.  

Now, Donald Trump laments that "political correctness" is keeping protesters and dissenters from being physically beaten - although he's encouraging his supporters to do so anyway.  How brave of him. Thanks largely to Trump, the term "politically incorrect" is now just a license for acting like an asshole. 

8.  Trump is like Ronald Reagan.   

Because Trump is hailed by his supporters as a Republican political savior, there are the inevitable comparisons to Ronald Reagan. Reagan, we are reminded, was also a political "outsider" and a former liberal whose views shifted rightward over time. (And, he's our only divorced President - naturally the twice-divorced Trump wants to top him.) Regardless of how you feel about Reagan or the hagiography that elevated him to sainthood, it's a silly comparison. Unlike Trump, Reagan had core convictions and his political views were shaped by decades of political experience and public service.  Reagan wasn't a crude billionaire game show host who suddenly decided to run for President. In temperament, they could not be more different.  Reagan was well-mannered and polite but politically loyal, popularizing an 11th commandment, "thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow republican." Trump, ever boorish and insulting, never got the memo.  Reagan and Trump may have both been celebrity entertainers before entering politics, but Reagan's supporters and detractors agree - Reagan had character. Trump IS a character - a clownish, thin-skinned, narcissistic bully with no moral compass and no core beliefs beyond himself and his will to power.

Ironically, Trump thought that Reagan himself was nothing but a masterful salesman.  Trump's slogan "make America great again" was stolen directly from Reagan.  And in the Art of the Deal, the 2nd greatest book of all time (after the bible, according to Trump), he says that Reagan was someone who could "con people" but who couldn't "deliver the goods." Sound familiar? 

9.  The media is against Donald Trump.

This might the greatest myth of them all. Trump may be an ignoramus when it comes to the issues, but he is a brilliant marketer who plays the media like a fiddle.  Oh sure he whines about how mean they are to him, but this war against the media is just part of his shtick. He bullies them as a way of "working the refs".  And it works.  The media enables and even coddles Trump - they give him a legitimacy that he's never earned and they give him exactly what he craves most:  attention. Watch how Trump and Morning Joe essentially strike that very bargain - the "journalists" agree to go easy on Trump and he gets them ratings.  They're entertainers too.  As Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS News admitted, Trump's rise "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS!" 

10. Donald Trump is taking on the establishment.  

Here's yet another example of the media enabling Trump by failing to challenge his core narrative - that he is somehow taking on the "establishment." It's been repeated so often that it's almost never questioned.  But Trump is only challenging the "establishment" if we define the establishment very narrowly to mean the political apparatus that is the Republican Party.  But if we are referring more broadly to the political-media establishment, Trump can hardly be said to be taking on the establishment.  Trump IS the establishment.  He's a savvy political operator and media mogul who's worked the political system for decades.  He's a consummate insider masquerading as an outsider.  It's a funny thing.  He's supposed to be the anti-establishment candidate and yet he's proposed no reforms, laws or policies to fix our broken system.  He has nothing to offer - only idle boasts that he's smarter, tougher, richer, more politically incorrect and more awesome than the elected officials currently in Washington DC.  But by now, it ought to be obvious - Donald Trump has never stood for anything other than Donald Trump. 

Well, as they used to say in the Roman Republic before it fell:  Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur.